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Senate GOP to decide April 21 on internal earmark ban

Debate could pit long-serving Republican appropriators against spending hawks and newer members who oppose restoring the practice

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has been a leading voice for keeping earmarks out of spending bills.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has been a leading voice for keeping earmarks out of spending bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL file photo)

Senate Republicans will decide next week whether to join their House colleagues in reversing a ban on earmarks or let a conference-wide prohibition remain in place.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet April 21 to “affirm” conference rules, including the “permanent” ban members adopted in 2019, according to a Senate Republican aide not authorized to speak publicly. But if any GOP senators put forward amendments changing or removing the ban, the conference would vote on those as well, according to the source.

The debate could pit long-serving Republican appropriators, including ranking member Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, against spending hawks in the party and newer members who oppose restoring the practice.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, first elected in 2014, has been a leading voice for keeping earmarks out of spending bills. He authored the permanent ban on “congressionally directed spending” that Republicans voted 28-12 to add to their conference rules less than two years ago. 

“The last thing taxpayers need during dual public health and economic crises is for politicians to reinstate earmarks,” Sasse said in a statement in late March. “Plain and simple: Earmarks fuel spending smorgasbords that let both parties ignore the huge drivers of our debt as long as they serve up special projects to their donors.”

Thirteen GOP senators are backing legislation that would create a point of order preventing consideration of bills with earmarks unless waived by a two-thirds vote. The measure is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Of those cosponsoring the bill, only Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, was in the Senate when earmarks were still allowed, though Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey and Ohio’s Rob Portman — both retiring at the end of this Congress — served in the House during the earmark era. 

Grassley earned national attention in late 2003 when he got $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Coralville, Iowa set aside in the fiscal 2004 omnibus spending package. Earmark critics in both chambers cited that project, among others, in a letter to House and Senate Appropriations panel leaders last month urging them to refrain from bringing back the practice.

Shelby has repeatedly told reporters that he supports lawmakers proposing and securing earmarks as long as they are meritorious and transparent. “I think it’s up to the individual senator if they want to do it. They’ve got to disclose it,” he said Monday.

The conference rules currently say “it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no Member shall request a congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit” in legislation before that chamber.

However, the conference rules also say “[n]o action by the Conference upon any matter pending or to be proposed in the Senate shall be binding in any way on members in casting their votes thereon.” So next week’s vote could be more of a symbolic statement of the Senate Republican position that doesn’t actually affect their possible inclusion of earmarks in fiscal 2022 spending bills.

An aide to GOP appropriators said Shelby plans to require disclosure of all earmark requests by individual senators, which goes beyond standing Senate rules requiring disclosure of projects that make it into legislation and reports accompanying the bills.

House Republicans voted last month to overturn their rule banning GOP lawmakers from requesting earmarks, following an announcement by House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., that her panel would bring earmarks back for the upcoming fiscal 2022 process.

House Democrats have put up several guardrails, including limiting members to 10 requests; requiring members affirm neither they nor any immediate family members have a financial interest in the project; having members post their requests online; and banning for-profit entities from receiving earmarked funds.  

The total amount of earmarked spending won’t be able to exceed 1 percent of discretionary spending, and the Government Accountability Office will audit the process annually.  

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., plans to bring earmarks back in the Senate as well this year, but hasn’t yet said exactly how the process will work. If Republicans participate, Leahy said he’d allocate half of the earmarked funds in the Senate to GOP lawmakers. 

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